Origins of Common-Law Restrictions on Water Transfers: Groundwater Law in Nineteenth-Century California
Despite the fact that court-mandated restrictions on voluntary transfers of water are common throughout the western United States, we currently lack a good economic understanding of the historical origins of many of those restrictions. In nineteenth-century California, groundwater law evolved from an initial regime of virtually no legal restrictions on transfers to one of significant restrictions after the turn of the century. This doctrinal shift was given partial impetus by increasing scientific understanding of groundwater flows, which was reflected in increasingly sophisticated court rulings. However, it was a dramatic deterioration in groundwater conditions in southern California around the turn of the century that triggered a significant change in the court treatment of groundwater transfers. This deterioration resulted from drought conditions and a secular expansion in irrigated agriculture during the 1890s and major technological improvements that made large-scale groundwater pumping increasingly economical.
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